Monday, February 6, 2017

Listen: this has happened before, part one.

I think we like to flatter ourselves that Trump is a unique figure in American history: blustering, cruel, and (most powerfully of all) shameless.  And we like to think that there has never been a time in history when human rights significantly receded; we prefer to imagine a long, relentless moral ascension.  And finally, we believe that there's never been a movement of Americans that was scared or angry enough to knowingly spurn our heritage of immigration or our values.

All of that is incorrect.  As Mark Twain may have said, "History doesn't repeat itself... but it does rhyme."  And while you might find it depressing that America has, in times past, met its fair share of demagogues, moral recidivism, and populist paranoia, I think it's heartening.  After all, America didn't just endure these evils... we defeated them.  We can do it again.

This is a three-part series.  We start with the Know-Nothings.

The Know-Nothings were a movement of conspiratorial-minded white Protestant men, from the middle-class and lower-class, who strongly opposed immigration and the perceived threat of Catholicism.  In the 1850s, the Whig Party was collapsing, but the Republicans had not yet arisen.  In the wake of the declining Whigs, sprang up a new movement of those who found the influx of German and Irish immigrants to be frightening and offensive, and who declared that the religion of Catholicism was incompatible with America.  The name came from secretive groups that met in private, and who -- when asked if they knew anything about the movement -- were supposed to answer, "I know nothing."

The party achieved considerable local success in major metropolitan areas in 1854 and 1855.  They took over the whole government of Massachusetts, and fielded successful candidates for mayor in Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Philadelphia, as well as putting their weight behind the governor of California and mayor of San Francisco.  Organized officially as the American Party, they then tried to expand their movement, and soon boasted more than a million members nationwide.

There was a particular fear that immigrants and Catholics were rigging the elections, and local elections in major cities from 1855-1858 were marred by violence, arson, and rioting.  Indeed, Know-Nothings suspected that Catholics were part of a vast conspiracy to make America bend its knee to the Pope; the party platform for the election of 1856 included a call for "War to the hilt, on political Romanism" and "Hostility to all Papal influences, when brought to bear against the Republic."

In Massachusetts, where Know-Nothings took over, they did some crazy things (establish a Nunnery Commission to report on the actions of the villainous nuns of the state) and some good things (build infrastructure and public schools), and -- thankfully -- were unable to actually enact most of their more vile desires due to their own incompetence.

Hopefully, at this point the parallels are painfully clear.  American society is more civil and won't forbear explicit racism, of course, and the two-party duopoly is too firmly established for this nativism to supplant an existing institution, but there can be no doubt that Trumpists are the spiritual successors of the Know-Nothings.

Neither movement sprang from nowhere.  In 1835, when the Whigs were still a relatively healthy party, people like Samuel Morse were writing The Imminent Dangers to the Free Institutions of the United States, in which he raved about the conspiracy of Jesuit priests and Irish immigrants:
O there is no danger to the Democracy; for those most devoted to the Pope, the Roman Catholics, especially the Irish Catholics, are all on the side of Democracy. Yes; to be sure they are on the side of Democracy. They are just where I should look for them. Judas Iscariot joined with the true disciples. ...  That Jesuits are at work upon the passions of the American community, managing in various ways to gain control, must be evident to all. They who have learned from history the general mode of proceeding of this crafty set of men, could easily infer that they were here, even were it not otherwise confirmed by unquestionable evidence in their correspondence with their foreign masters in Austria. There are some, perhaps, who are under the impression that the order of Jesuits is a purely religious Society for the dissemination of the Roman Catholic religion; and therefore comes within the protection of our laws, and must be tolerated. There cannot be a greater mistake. It was from the beginning a political organization, an absolute Monarchy masked by religion.
In the same way, Trumpism required the constant drumbeat of twenty years of an alternative media, which challenged every arbiter of truth but itself and which whipped itself into a factless fury of fear at the dangerous hordes of Mexican immigrants and encroaching Sharia law.  Former conservative radio star Charlie Sykes wrote recently in The New York Times about the process, relating:
For years, as a conservative radio talk show host, I played a role in that conditioning by hammering the mainstream media for its bias and double standards. But the price turned out to be far higher than I imagined. The cumulative effect of the attacks was to  delegitimize those outlets and essentially destroy much of the right’s immunity to false information. We thought we were creating a savvier, more skeptical audience. Instead, we opened the door for President Trump, who found an audience that could be easily misled.
So here we are.  One party has been taken over by a brash conspiracy theorist who warns darkly about immigration and who has made himself the enemy of a whole religion, and whose base is found almost exclusively among the ranks of whites who believe their way of life is under threat.  Not all of those who voted for President Trump represent these modern Know-Nothings, of course... even in the primary race among only Republican voters, Trump never achieved a majority.  The new Know-Nothings are his most vocal supporters, and the angriest, and nastiest, but they are no more than a fraction of America.

In the end, that was the downfall of the Know-Nothings, too.  In most of the country, there wasn't enough anger or paranoia to sustain them; where they did seize control, they were too incompetent to stay in power  and couldn't endure the relentless hammering of the opposition.  Their candidate in 1856, former president Millard Fillmore, won one state (Maryland), and they dissolved as their supporters in the South returned to the Democrats and those in the North joined the nascent Republicans.

Ray Billington wrote a fitting epitaph for the Know-Nothings in 1959:
The defeat of Know-Nothingism was also a setback for intolerance. When put to the test, the bigots who had fomented against Romanists and aliens for a generation had nothing to offer save the timeworn clichés of bigotry and a political ineptitude that revealed their own inferiority.
What can we learn from this?  Bearing in mind that metaphor isn't argument, I think this story is still instructive.

The Know-Nothings declined for three reasons:

  • They were wrong.  There was no secret Popish plot, the Jesuits weren't rigging elections, and the world just wasn't what they said.
  • They were never representative.  Not enough Americans fell for the scam or the fear, in the end, and so no sustaining popular movement could be built.
  • They faced ceaseless opposition.  Many Whigs and Democrats openly loathed them, and few prominent leaders were supportive (even if they wouldn't speak out).

It is my firm belief that Trump and his followers are wrong about the world and that they are a small fraction of America.  If we are right, and I hope we are, then we need only one thing more for victory.

We need to resist.  We need ceaseless, courageous, and passionate opposition.

We need to call our representatives, meet them in town halls, fax and email and call them out on the street.  We need to hold them accountable and hold Trump accountable.  We need to fill every minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run.

Resist, folks.  We've done it before.  We can do it again.

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